A new U.S. Forest Service proposal would designate 47 spots in northern Southeast Alaska for large commercial tour groups to use.
The agency recently released a draft environmental impact statement that would guide commercial recreation on about 5,000 miles of shoreline from South Baranof Island to Skagway. Public comments on the plan will be accepted through the first part of January, according to team leader Bill Tremblay.
The proposal would affect outfitter-guides, smaller cruise ships, hunters, kayakers and anglers on the north end of the Tongass National Forest. The goal is to take a comprehensive look at commercial recreation, Tremblay said.
"We're seeing a lot more of the mid-size cruise ship types, larger groups than what smaller outfitter and guides deal with and something smaller than what the large cruise ships have. There are areas along the Tongass where their use might be dispersed," he said. "This document looks at things in a cumulative way on a number of groups that may go into an area during the season."
Under the preferred alternative in the draft plan, the Forest Service would allocate an average of 23 percent of total recreation capacity to commercial use. The allocation would vary depending on land use designation and how close an area is to a community.
Right now, the Forest Service doesn't have a specific allocation for commercial use and issues permits on a case-by-case basis, according to the document.
The preferred option would designate 33 areas for large groups to use in all seasons and another 14 spots large groups could use occasionally.
"Groups can be as large as 75 people in size, but the caveat to that is there is some differentiation of group size depending on the land use designation," Tremblay said. "In a wilderness, groups are limited to 12 people or less."
Some sites near Juneau that would be designated for large groups include No Name Cove at the northern side of the entrance to Tracy Arm, a spot on the east side of Shelter Island, Sunny Cove on the north side of Taku Inlet, Cordwood Creek on the west side of Admiralty Island's Mansfield Peninsula, Fowler Creek at the base on the Mansfield Peninsula and a small cove on the back side of Douglas Island.
The Boat Company, which operates small cruise ships with a maximum of 24 passengers in Southeast, is preparing comments on the proposal, vice president Mark McIntosh said. The company doesn't have a set itinerary for its trips and keeps its groups to no more than 12 people, he said.
McIntosh said his company has been talking with the Forest Service for the past three or four years about finding more areas for medium-size cruise ships to use. At the same time, the agency needs to take a rational approach, he said.
"There is a limit. Whether we've reached that, I'm not sure," he said. "When we're out on the water there are boats, not a lot of boats, but the operators are good about talking to each other. ... It remains to be seen whether we're at capacity. Some places we are, maybe some places we aren't."
Chris Erickson of Juneau, a guide with Tok River Outfitters, said his hunting trips have come into contact with kayakers and divers during the spring and fall "shoulder seasons" more often in the past few years. Because of increased competition, it is appropriate for the Forest Service to look at organizing commercial use, he said.
"We're getting pushed more and more into smaller and smaller areas," he said. "Those are very real concerns."
For a copy of the draft plan or to submit comments, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.